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Mom, I think we need to talk … on stage

mothermothermother by Michael Rubenfeld Pictured is Mary Berchard and Michael Rubenfeld.

Photo credit is to Marjam Nemat Tavousi

Michael Rubenfeld, artistic producer of Toronto's SummerWorks Festival, and his mother Mary Berchard are finally having a no-holds-barred conversation after years of becoming more and more distanced from one another. Why did it take Mary so long to leave the "psychopath" she lived with after divorcing his father, Michael wants to know? How come Michael had so much time for his ex-girlfriend's family but has none for his own, Mary counters?

"You're playing to the audience, Mom!" Michael complains – and the crowd watching them argue at Buddies in Bad Times' cabaret bursts into laughter, relieving the tension.

There was a time when theatre artists who had unresolved issues with their parents would turn them into lightly fictionalized characters in a play – and then tear them apart by proxy.

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Now, as part of our new "reality culture," more and more performers are dragging their real-life parents up on stage to air their dirty laundry in public – and allowing the older generation to return fire.

Rubenfeld, 34, and Berchard, 63, have been working out their issues as part of a show-in-development called mothermothermother…, which was showcased at Buddies' experimental Rhubarb Festival earlier this month.

It follows on the heels of A Brimful of Asha, a play in which thirty-something director Ravi Jain tells the true story of how his parents tried to arrange a marriage for him on a trip to India – as his 60-year-old mother Asha provides a steady stream of interjections from her perspective. The Jains are currently reprising their show at the Belfry Theatre in Victoria, before they return to Toronto's Tarragon Theatre for a third time due to popular demand.

"I think the success has a lot to do with the fact that my mother's not an actor and she's really charming," says Ravi, 33, who has, in fact, recently made his mother happy by finding a wife. "It's been hilarious for me, because this woman who used to hate the theatre, now she's giving me notes."

And there's evidently an appetite among audiences for these semi-scripted shows – which, beyond being voyeuristic cringefests, also tackle extremely relatable problems in an original and accessible way. Mothermothermother… was the most talked about piece at this year's Rhubarb, while the Jains, who will tour Canada again next season, are negotiating future runs of A Brimful of Asha in London and New York.

It's not just sons and mothers creating these new family acts, either. Testament, a German show loosely structured around King Lear that comes to Toronto's World Stage festival next month, features four female theatre artists in their 40s talking about inheritances, senility and death with their actual fathers.

Ilia Papatheodorou, who confronts her 72-year-old father Theodoros in the show, says the performance has helped her dad, a retired engineer with Hewlitt-Packard, understand her better and vice versa. "He used to really bear down on me and curse me for my work in the theatre, because he had different ideas," she says. "Now I've gained his professional respect."

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Vancouver playwright and director Marcus Youssef, who found Testament "very moving" when he saw it at the PuSh Festival in January, wishes that he could bring his 74-year-old mother up on stage with him to overcome their long-standing estrangement; unfortunately, Roleene Youssef has Alzheimer's now and is now in a care home.

And so for Youssef's show How Has My Love Affected You?, currently playing at the Arts Club in Vancouver, he reads from the journals his mother left to him. The 43-year-old performer allows his mother's own writings – some of which are set to songs sung by his 17-year-old son, Zak, who shares the stage with him – to contradict his version of events.

Like mothermothermother… and A Brimful of Asha , this is a more generous attempt to tackle the gulf between children and parents in the theatre than the old semi-autobiographical plays with monster mothers or fathers in the tradition of Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie or Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night.

Youssef, 43, sees the trend as a product of a society that is increasingly open about personal matters, as well as the larger reality culture, which includes cheap reality television shows like The Bachelor, of course, but also more intelligent attempts to inject reality into art like Sheila Heti's memoir-novel How Should a Person Be? or Sarah Polley's documentary about her family secrets, Stories We Tell.

"We're in a kind of moment," says Youssef. "The codes of authenticity have veered so far away from traditional fictionalized structures."

As for whether these shows are just free therapy for the parents and children involved – Rubenfeld says performing mothermothermother... actually is working out better than therapy. "Something about being in front of an audience makes us accountable to each other," he says. "When you're in a therapy room, a psychiatrist is trained not to get involved. When you're in front of an audience, you're asking them to engage in our story."

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Berchard, who hadn't been on a stage since middle school before mothermothermother…, agrees. "Every since we've started this, he's become this stellar son without having to be guilted," she says. "Not that he wasn't before, but now it's not just on his terms." As it turns out, the family that plays together, stays together.

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About the Author
Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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